Monday, June 21, 2010


For nearly fifteen years, Frances Mayes has been enchanting readers about her love affair with Italy. Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany, her two previous bestselling memoirs, magically recount her finding and restoring a broken down villa in Cortona, Italy, near Florence, and her subsequent life there, shared with her poet-husband Ed. In EVERY DAY IN TUSCANY: Seasons of an Italian Life (Broadway Books; $25.00; ISBN: 978-0-7679-2982-0), Mrs. Mayes is now a famous author. Her work has benefited the town of Cortona, luring hordes of tourists eager to see the house and perhaps meet its mistress. Where once she and her husband took on the renovation work themselves, a recently purchased property in dilapidated state not far from Bramasole, the villa they lovingly restored, has been turned over to professionals for a major rehab. Now retired from her demanding teaching job in San Francisco, Mrs. Mayes has the time to explore the country’s many pleasures. If anything she is even more enamored of Italy and her delight with her adopted home becomes ours.

“The giving, the fun, and the spontaneity of every day life here shock me and return me immediately to a munificent state of being that gradually start to feel normal,” she writes ecstatically early on in EVERY DAY IN TUSCANY. “I begin to notice here at Bramasole, that my skin fits perfectly over my body, just as this house sits so serenely and naturally on this hillside.” Later on she writes, “In Tuscany, I learned to take time. Take time to have coffee with the one-armed man in my neighborhood, who tells me how he drives his stick-shift Panda with his dog in his lap, and how as a child he ate bread dipped in red wine for breakfast. Dividing the snarl of Iris bulbs and replanting them around an olive tree takes time. I find that I have it.” This is the kind of poetic narrative that has won for Mrs. Mayes, many readers. Whether searching out the canvases of Renaissance painter Luca Signorelli, foraging for wild field greens near her house, or sitting in the main piazza of Cortona, sipping a coffee, Mrs. Mayes takes time, and reading her elegant prose, we are rewarded over and over again as she describes the endless ways that life in Italy continues to stimulate and give her joy.

Readers who make pilgrimages to Bramasole leave modest offerings such a flowers and other gifts. The film version of Under the Tuscan Sun brought even more visitors, to the point where Cortona is a thriving tourist attraction. “Tourists who arrive with their cameras want to see the house more than they want to see me,” she writes with bemusement. “Some stay for an hour, staring up. Friendships begin in the road, and one marriage resulted from two people meeting here. What visitors don’t know is how the sound carries on the side of the hill. Up in my study with the windows open, I often hear blissful comments (“Isn’t it dreamy, just dreamy,” “Oh, my god, how spectacular—look at those roses”), speculation about my private life (“They got divorced, you know” and, of course, the most frequent refrain—“She doesn’t live here anymore”). Sometimes I hear, “This can’t be Bramasole—that screen is wonky,” “It’s crumbling,” and “My house is much bigger than this.”

And with success comes some unpleasantness as well. In circulating a petition to protest the site of the building of a public pool near her home, Mrs. Mayes found herself feeling like something of an outsider. Few of their Italian neighbors were willing to sign the petition for fear of reprisals such as their taxes going up, or their businesses being investigated. A hostile and inaccurate story in a small local paper by the editor who had an interest in the business earned sympathy from the locals, but the project still went forward. Strangely reprisal does arrive in a surprisingly scary way through a hand-grenade that was left in her driveway. Someone was clearly sending a message, and it understandably frightened her.

Unlike many recent books that chronicle life in a foreign country, Mrs. Mayes avoids being cute. There are no humorless forced stories about the quaint behavior of the “locals” in her books. She isn’t totally serious, describing her delight in sitting at dinner one evening next to Robert Redford where they talk of good writers they admire.

Food is a part of EVERY DAY IN TUSCANY as it has been in her previous books, and there are some lovely recipes here, including a Plum Tart (Torta Di Susine Con Mandorle) and Faro Salad (Insalata Di Faro), a grain that is native to Tuscany and ought to be better known in the U.S. Clearly she is an accomplished cook and the book is full of delightful meals served at her table or at the homes of friends. Part of the many short trips Mrs. Mayes describes in the book such as Portofino or Assisi, is the food they find in local restaurants. The long Tuscan summers are given over to great feasts of good food and wine, and the winters feature meals in the comfort of a warm house with friends, the delicious meals keeping the cold far away.

In the final chapters, Mrs. Mayes writes eloquently about the differences between eating in America and in Italy. “At the table, there is no discussion among the children about what someone does or does not like, because they like everything Aurora, Fiorella, Linda, Ombretta, Giusi, Silvia, or Donatella serve,” she writes with a sense of wonder. “The language helps, too. Coniglio and agnello don’t convey the loaded sentiments of Peter Rabbit and Mary’s little lamb." She begins to teach her grandson, Willie who visits in the summer to cook. And near the end of the chapter, these lines made me smile. “I’ve never heard of a dish referred to as ‘your protein’ or ‘a carb,’ and there’s no dreary talk at all about glutens, portion control, fat content, or calories. Eating in Italy made me aware of how tortured the relationship to food is in my country. After a long Tuscan dinner, I feel not only the gift of exceptional company, food, and wine, but also an inexplicable sense of well-being, of revival. Dinner invigorates the spirit as it nourishes the body.”

I read EVERY DAY IN TUSCANY quickly and in big chunks and only began to slow down by the final third, adapting my reading time to the book's rhythm. Why did it take me so long to get the message? Now I understand the concept of taking time. Thank you, Frances Mayes.

Insalata Di Farro

Farro Salad

Farro is sometimes translated as spelt but is actually its own distinctive grain. Tuscans love it with chickpeas in a rousing winter soup. In summer, faro salad is an inspired choice for lunches because it is easy, abundant, and tasty. Leftover faro salad keeps in the fridge for 3 or 4 days and is handy for wraps or to serve in radicchio leaves on an antipasto platter. Serves 10

2 cups faro

4 tomatoes, chopped, or ½ cup sun-dried tomatoes, diced

2 or 3 ribs celery, chopped

½ cup green olives, cut in half if they’re large

2 shallots, minced

3 garlic cloves, minced

¼ to ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup basil leaves, torn

1 cup parsley, chopped

Salt and pepper

Follow the directions on the package of faro. Usually it cooks in less than 2 hours. While the faro is cooking, mix the other ingredients together. Drain the faro and add it to the vegetable mixture, correct the seasonings, and serve at room temperature.

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